While hanging out with her sister, Maha Abouelenein’s phone rings. Journalist and author Katie Couric is calling. It’s just another normal day for this sought-after, successful entrepreneur.
Wayzata’s Abouelenein has a wealth of stories about the places she’s been and the people she’s met—like how she met former first lady Michelle Obama and volunteered at the 2008 Democratic National Convention or the times she separately took comedian and television host Jon Stewart and actor Samuel L. Jackson on work-related visits to the pyramids in Egypt. “I always find myself in the weirdest places, meeting the craziest people,” Abouelenein says, noting that at last year’s U.S. Open tennis tournament, she introduced one of her clients to her friend and CBS This Morning’s
co-host Gayle King.
But to appreciate Abouelenein’s engaging anecdotes, you should understand her sedulous intention to invest in meaningful relationships and bring value to people. Her influence spans 29 years in the public relations and communications spheres, where she’s the founder and managing director of Organizational Consultants and founder of Digital & Savvy. Additionally, she’s led global communication strategies for companies like Google (as an employee) and as a communications advisor to Netflix for the Middle East and the region of North Africa.
We sat down with the raconteur and communications powerhouse to learn about her journey from Mankato to the Middle East and her move back to Minnesota.
Abouelenein was born and raised in Mankato, where her parents moved after they married in Egypt. Her father, Gaber Abouelenein, PhD., was a longtime faculty member and the dean of Minnesota State University, Mankato’s (MSU) College of Business. Abouelenein earned her bachelor’s and graduate degrees at MSU and moved to the Twin Cities, where she interned for Weber Shandwick and then briefly worked for General Mills until 1997 when her mother, Sawsan Abouelenein, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her parents moved back to Egypt, and Abouelenein, who was caring for her mom, went with them.
“I’m Egyptian, and I’d been to Egypt on vacation for Christmas, New Year’s and summers, but it’s one thing to live somewhere and another thing to be on vacation,” Abouelenein says of the transition. “I had to learn all new muscles—make new friends and acquaintances.”
It was in Egypt where Abouelenein discovered and embraced the notion that all business is personal—it’s about relationships first, not transactions. She proceeded to build her career from there, focusing on the human side of doing business.
She helped launched several mobile networks in Egypt. “Cellphones were just being introduced across the Middle East and Africa, and I was writing the tenders to get those licenses and launch those projects,” Abouelenein says. “I was in the front seat of seeing all this new technology be introduced into the Middle East and North Africa region.” That’s when she ended up being part of the largest IPO (Orascom Telecom) in the history of Egypt.
Next, she built a public relations agency network for Weber Shandwick in the Middle East, supervising 19 offices. How? She knocked on the CEO’s door and offered something of value—the understanding of what it took for a U.S. company to open in the Middle East.
With a goal helping people effectively communicate, Abouelenein launched Organizational Consultants, named after a firm her father had owned, working with U.S. companies that wanted to operate in the Middle East. “I was American, so I knew the American lingo, how U.S. businesses think, but I’m also Egyptian and Arab, and I speak Arabic, so I know the culture and the language and the nuances,” she says. “Making the match between what those markets need is where I ended up being a sweet spot.” She advised Coca-Cola, General Motors, Mars, McDonald’s and Visa.
Abouelenein went to work for Google in Dubai as head of global communications and public policy, overseeing 18 countries in the Middle East. After that, she went back to running her company, serving Netflix, Careem (which Uber now owns), Deezer (a French online streaming service) and several technological communication companies.
Her broad reach doesn’t end there as it expanded after a friend recommended Crushing It, a book about personal branding by Gary Vaynerchuck, an entrepreneur and nonfungible token (NFT) and digital marketing guru. Abouelenein connected with him and offered to help set up an agency network in the Middle East. “Long story short—I met [Vaynerchuck], and for five years now, I’ve been running his communications,” she says.
Abouelenein moved from Dubai to Minnesota during the pandemic. “I always thought I would come back to Minnesota eventually,” she says. “My mom and dad passed away, my sister’s still here, all my high school friends are still here and I love Minnesota more than anything,” she says.
While Abouelenein works with influential people, celebrities, CEOs, sports icons and high net worth individuals, she remains steadfast in putting people before transactions. To that end, she maintains a three-point strategy: build meaningful relationships, create value and be a connector.
“Everyone asks me, ‘How did you get to meet all these people?’” Abouelenein says. “First of all, I try to create value for them. I learn what they are trying to achieve, and then I ask myself, ‘How can I add value to them in that regard—what can I bring to the table that no one else can?’”
When she goes to an event, Abouelenein is intentional about making the most of the experience by creating connections. “The reason I have so much joy doing my job is I love being a connector and bringing people together to create something unique,” she says.
But she won’t simply introduce people to each other. “I need to know what is it that you want, what’s valuable. Then I have to talk to the other person to make sure I’m creating something that’s meaningful,” she says. “I find the secret sauce or the magical thing that might make a business opportunity for both of you to turn into something really good.”
With so much personal and professional experiences behind her, what’s next? Abouelenein excitedly talks about writing a book and leading the charge for VeeCon, the world’s first NFT-ticketed conference in May at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. “I’m trying to put Minnesota on the map with entrepreneurs and trying to help businesses understand the importance of the state and all the different things we have to offer. I want to give back to this community in Minnesota that made me.”
Abouelenein offers her perspectives on branding and the importance of lifelong learning.
Build your personal brand
People tell Abouelenein that they don’t have a personal brand, or they think it’s bragging. But it’s really the practice of marketing yourself. “If you have a social media account, you have a personal brand,” she says. “It’s taking the unique combination of your skills and your experience and your personality that you really want the world to see. Personal branding is not about boasting or self-promotion.
It’s about leadership.”
Your brand is whatever expertise or subject matter you’re crazy about. It defines how people see you. “What is it that you want other people to know about you? What are you consistently doing in your own behavior?” Abouelenein says. “Do that. That’s your personal brand.”
“That’s why I created my podcast [Savvy Talk], so I can help other people understand how to do good storytelling, how to build good narrative, how to pitch to the press, how to handle a crisis, how to overcome your fear of public speaking,” she says.
Read, listen and consume
Abouelenein pushes herself to constantly be “sharpening her saw.” She says, “You have to always think about being a lifelong learner … I know a lot about NFTs. I know a lot about gaming. I have to constantly learn new things.”
Whether it’s learning from people on social media, taking online courses or meeting people, being a lifelong learner means you are curious.
“If you have a sense of curiosity, you’re probably going to open yourself up to more opportunities, and you never know what you’re going to find interesting that could truly turn into a tremendous opportunity for you,” she says. digitalandsavvy.com
What’s not to love about Wayzata?
It’s fair to say that Abouelenein is a seasoned traveler, but ask her what she loves about living in Wayzata, and it’s clear she relishes exploring the local scene.
She points to Gianni’s Steakhouse for, naturally, steak; The Grocer’s Table for coffee and chocolate chip cookies; and CōV Wayzata for Sunday brunch or happy hour.
What’s a trip to downtown Wayzata without a little shopping? Abouelenein appreciates shops like Anthropologie (clothing and home décor), Jewelweed (health and wellness boutique) and lululemon (athletic wear).
When it’s time for some outdoor walking or biking, Abouelenein favors the Dakota Regional Trail, which routes through several communities and offers 13.5 miles of paved trails.